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Merchandise and the Swiss border

Mathias Kom, The Burning Hell 
- August 2023 -

My band is from Canada, and though we’ve toured in the EU roughly once or more per year since 2008, we don’t always make it across the border into Switzerland as well. I must admit that part of the reason for this is the challenge that Swiss customs bureaucracy presents, and the notorious reputation that Swiss border guards have for thorough, time-consuming van searches. In theory, it should be straightforward, but in practice, depending on where you’re crossing and which agent you get, it can be a bewildering and frustrating experience.

Many years ago, we were headed to Schaffhausen and crossed at a very quiet rural border station. We expected to get stopped and questioned about our merchandise, but instead they hauled us all out of the van and into the customs building, where a drug-sniffing dog gave us a thorough examination, and then did the same to the entire contents of the van. The dog was old and very cute, but we resisted the urge to pet him, since his human handler was the only one growling at us. We’ve never crossed any border with illegal drugs, but it made us nervous anyway. Once the dog had sniffed of our boxes of T-shirts and records, I was sure that the next step would be filling out the import paperwork for our merchandise. Somehow, this didn’t happen, and they sent us on our way. We were so frazzled by the experience that we didn’t say anything and just drove on to our gig.

This brings me to my first piece of advice: if you approach the Swiss border and the guard waves your van through, you should stop anyway and explain that you have merchandise to declare. The reason for this is that it’s equally possible you’ll get stopped on the way out of Switzerland, and if you get asked about merchandise there, you won’t have any documentation to show from your entry to the country. I really don’t know what might happen in this situation, but I’m sure there’d be some sort of fine involved for not declaring your imports. Based on the price of everything else in Switzerland, you probably wouldn’t want to have to pay this. So, whatever you do, make sure you stop on the way in. If you’re like me and you get frantic about time, but also always seem to be late to everything, you should budget an extra couple of hours for your crossing just in case.

Here's how it’s supposed to work: you have a neatly printed, itemized list of all your merchandise (not just records and CDs, but T-shirts and anything else you plan to sell in Switzerland), including the number of units of each item, the value, and the place of manufacture. Better yet, you’ve filled out this form online in advance. In reality, you’ve probably just played a gig the night before your crossing in Freiburg or Stuttgart or Munich, everyone is exhausted, you’re already late, nobody has a printer, and maybe your German or French isn’t good enough to figure out the online form.

So, here’s how it really works – for us, and for every other band I’ve ever talked to about it. You count your merch (yes, every single unit) the morning of your crossing. Write it all down on a piece of paper, including the price of each item. Note that the price should be how much you sell things for, not the per-unit cost to you to manufacture. If you’re very clever and well-organized, you can print out a list of everything you’ll be carrying in advance, with space to fill in how many units you’ll actually be bringing into Switzerland when the time comes to cross the border – this would obviously look a bit more professional, and I think about that every time I write out a list by hand on a piece of paper taken from our drummer’s journal.

When you stop at the border, open the back of the van and show the customs agent the boxes, along with your list. They may decide to count everything to double-check your numbers, so it’s smart to reorganize the van before you cross the border to have all the merchandise easily accessible. If you have paperwork from your record label or receipts from your t-shirt manufacturer, these are great to have on hand in case they ask for further official documentation, but this has never happened to us. Don’t worry about your equipment – there are no import formalities for instruments or other gear you’ll be using to play gigs in Switzerland. All you need to think about is the merch, and do be sure to count it carefully in advance: this will save you so much time and frustration at the border. It might also help to dress as neatly as you can, avoid smelling like stale beer from the night before, and apologize for not having the list printed out on the official form. In our experience, this always works out, and the guards will direct you into an office nearby.

At smaller crossings, this might be just a little shed; at bigger ones, it can be quite a large building, but typically it’s obvious where to go, and if you get confused someone will point out the right window or desk. Show your passport and your hand-written list to the agent on duty, explain your situation again, and get your credit card ready: you’ll need to pay tax in advance on every commercial item you want to import. Let’s say you have 100 T-shirts that you usually sell for 20€ each, but you only expect to sell ten of them to Swiss fans: you still pay tax on 100. Depending on how much merch you’re travelling with, this could add up to a lot, so make sure your credit card can handle it. After they take your money, they’ll give you a receipt and a stamped form. Use whatever method works best for you to avoid losing these documents: when you exit Swizterland, you’ll need to give these to the customs agent along with the same hand-written note with updated numbers showing how much merchandise you sold in the country, and they’ll process a refund for the rest of the tax directly to your credit card.

It's theoretically helpful, but not necessary, to use the same border crossing to enter and exit the country. On our last tour (May 2023), the agent who processed our fees at the Basel crossing asked us if we’d be coming back the same way; we told him we would, and the date, and he said “oh, I’ll be on duty then, just come see me when you leave.” In practice, it wasn’t so easy: it was an early morning leaving Switzerland and I missed the little parking lot I was supposed to use at customs. I parked at the McDonald’s just a few metres across the border and walked back to the big customs building. Once inside, I found a huge group of truckers waiting around, and a very exasperated-looking agent (not our friend from the way in) took one look at me and told me I was in the wrong place. I should take “the tunnel,” she said, gesturing into the bowels of the building. I bravely, blindly set off, and a Romanian trucker headed the same way took pity on me and showed me where to go: down several flights of stairs into a deep sub-basement, and then through a dimly-lit, narrow concrete tunnel that ran under the entire motorway to the other side. The fluorescent tubes were flickering creepily, and if it hadn’t been for my cheerful new trucker friend, it would have been a scary experience. But we made it through without any horror movie consequences, and found ourselves in a maze of tiny offices and dark stairwells. Each office seemed to be connected to a different transportation company (I recognized the names from the sides of passing trucks on various European tours over the years), and each had a clerk inside. My friend started asking me questions in Romanian, and though it’s not a language I speak a single word of, I gathered that he was asking which firm I worked for so he could show me the correct office. Eventually I think I managed to communicate in a strange gumbo of French, Spanish, and Italian that I was in a band, and the look he gave me when he understood was a beautiful combination of bewilderment and pity. He shrugged, I shrugged back, and I set off into the warren of corridors and stairwells. Eventually I found my way to the lobby, and there was our original customs agent, sitting behind his usual desk. We chatted about the tour, he took my documents back, stamped them, and filed the official ones away in a drawer somewhere. I went to the cashier and presented my credit card again: they first charged me tax on the goods that we had sold, then in a second transaction they refunded the full amount I had paid on the way in. As I was leaving, the agent said, “don’t forget your document!” and gave me back the extremely unofficial piece of paper we had written everything down on. It’s a nice souvenir to have, and a reminder that this process – while governed by a complicated series of laws and formalities – can also be somewhat flexible, and very different for everyone.

So, I want to stress again that the way we’ve done things over the years is not the perfect, official way, and if you have a tour manager and a portable printer and the means to do everything correctly with the online forms, that’s excellent. But if you’re in a DIY band or you’re some other kind of independent artist, it’s important to know that as long as you try your best to do it correctly and are as honest as possible at the border, the worst that will happen is you’ll have to spend some time waiting in a queue or wandering through a dark tunnel and trying to learn Romanian.

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